Bodies are often mapped by borders, erroneously, as much as the landscape is. What then are the borderlands of the body? How are those lines marked and re-marked throughout our lives, throughout our living? In work and play our identities are fashioned and re-fashioned. Where we work and what we do shapes who we are. Where we play and with whom we play changes how we view the world.
What, then, is the connection between the perception of a body, a giant balloon and baseball, in this blog post? The enlistment of borders.
Sports have a way of helping us take flight—for the audience and the players alike. By pushing the envelope of what is possible, by meeting new people, we find ourselves with a renewed sense of imagination for our lives. Michael “Air” Jordan wasn’t just one of the greatest basketball players of all time, he showed us what it looked like to defy gravity.
For many athletes, being a part of a team may be the first time in their lives that they get to travel away from home, meet people from communities that don’t look like them and play on unfamiliar territory. In some cases, it is the first time they encounter what it means to play on a different field yet still somehow at home. The Tecolotes de los Dos Laredos, a baseball team in Laredo, Texas, plays on both sides of the southwestern border, crossing for each game between Mexico and the United States. Their name means Owls of the Two Laredos, and their slogan is “Dos Naciones, Un Equipo,” which means “Two Nations, One Team” .
For The Tecolotes, “issues between the countries are among the politicians and leaders,” says infielder Alejandro Rivero, who is from the Yucatán Peninsula, “We’re just the athletes who play on both sides, but we’re showing people can enjoy life and live in peace” . From the binational locations of their home and away games to the border crossing fees waived with game-day ticket stubs, the organizers and coaches are intentionally symbolizing what it means to privilege the person over politics, over border walls.
“It’s hard to live when limits are put on you,” says outfielder Amaury Cazana, who escaped his native Cuba, ended up in Miami and later was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in 2006. “So when you have the opportunity to move freely across a border, you feel accomplished” .
"...Their slogan is 'Dos Naciones, Un Equipo,' which means 'Two Nations, One Team'"
In a New York Times piece titled, “At the Texas Border, the Home Team Is from Mexico,” the writer James Wagner outlines in detail the ingenuity that it takes to accomplish and orchestrate the Tecolotes’ games. The creation of the cross-border team was pioneered by the genius of Mexican businessman José Antonio Mansur, owner of the Tecolotes, who moved the team from Veracruz to Laredo. It was a creative, logistical feat.
As one of the busiest land ports in the United States, with over $200 billion in trade passing through the town just as of last year, Laredo on average has close to 40,000 people a day crossing the border . While the move on the part of Mansur has a bit of opportunistic shimmer, it is more than a business opportunity: As the Laredo city manager Horacio De Leon states, “Growing up, it was like one community. We go see a family member on one side and go to school here” .
As baseball is, for the Tecolotes, a kind of transport to a binational sense of homeland, in Esi Edugyan’s latest novel, Washington Black, the protagonist finds himself as part of another kind of border-crossing logistical feat: He hops in a flying machine as means to escape the limitations of place and space, to escape from plantation in Barbados called Faith.
Washington Black, a once enslaved person, takes off in a hot air balloon with inventor Christopher Wilde, the brother of his former slaver, crossing from Barbados to Canada. “Washington Black,” who narrates his own story, “will not be dictated by history,” Colm Toibin writes, in a review for the New York Times . In his piece titled “Airborne,” Toibin clarifies, “The novel instead will give [Washington Black] permission to soar above his circumstances and live a life that has been shaped by his imagination, his intelligence and his rich sensibility” .
The realties for Washington Black, during the waning days of slavery in Barbados are grim and gut-wrenching—like the realities of many migrant populations who often have the boundaries of space tightly conscripted for them and onto them. The novel takes place in the 1830s on a sugar plantation called Faith. Although in 1834 Britain abolished slavery, the waning years on that plantation were filled with murderousness, terrifying punishments and random acts of cruelty .
Prior to being whisked away on a flying machine, Washington Black’s sense of hope is embodied in an elder woman on the plantation, Big Kat, whose Africanistic principles helped with imparting a sense of resolve and fortitude. “Death was a door…She did not fear it. She was of an ancient faith rooted in the high river lands of Africa, and in that faith the dead were reborn, whole, back in their homelands, to walk again free,” Edugyan writes .
In a way, Big Kat and Washington Black both represent the temporariness of bondage. Death is not death; it is a reuniting, a returning home. Enslavement is not an identity nor a history of a people; it is a momentary—in the grand scheme of things—conscription, like a kind of borderland.
The Tecolotes repeatedly and legally crossing the U.S.-Mexican border is both commentary and prayer. It shows the short-sightedness of erecting walls as a one-size-fits-all solution to the more complex issue of immigration reform. The Tecolotes are showing what it means to be neighbors. They are saying, in essence, this is what it means to share in and respect each other’s lands—without building a giant, super-surveilled wall. They are having respectable fun. They are incentivizing neighborliness.
"They are incentivizing neighborliness."
By requiring their players to get the proper visas, involving the mayors on both sides, giving discounts on border-crossings with ticket stubs from the games—in my mind, they are saying, “Hey, you want to come enjoy a game, in the stands or on the field? We’ll help you get your papers together to do so. Let’s have compassion for each other’s struggles, respect each other’s guards and—play ball.”
Mayor Enrique Rivas of Nuevo Laredo says, speaking about his border town, “We live in a reality here different than Washington or Mexico City thinks. Baseball came here to unite what politics perhaps hasn’t been able to do” . After being continually under a blanket of “stereotype and stigma,” “violence and insecurity,” as Mayor Rivas remarks, populations like the residents of Laredo have an outlet where their community’s humanity and ability, business acumen and cultural values can shine.
Mansur’s efforts are part of creating a kind of repeated homecoming through the game of baseball in a border town. Edugyan presents a tender and reticent character in Washington Black, who, in his restless and striving mind, has an “urge to live all he can” . In both narratives, we see a creative endeavoring to go beyond the fettered body.
And who can conscript the imagination?
The connection between border-crossing and the Underground Railroad is reimagined in the stories of the Tecolotes (Owls) and Washington Black, who both exemplifies what it means to defy a gravity that has befallen a nation of people.